It is widely agreed that President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic—his conscious and non-stop lies, his blundering incompetence, and his open disdain for science—has helped lead the U.S. to where it is today: Record-shattering Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths and an economy in shambles.
But placing the blame for the disastrous current state of affairs entirely at the feet of Trump risks letting off the hook a more fundamental culprit, namely the conservative anti-government ideology and "free market"-worship at the core of much of the administration's response to the deadly pandemic.
"Conservative leaders refused to marshal the resources of government to actually combat the spread of the disease. Instead, in keeping with their ideology, they wanted to leave it to individuals and the 'free market.'"
—Michael Linden, Groundwork Collaborative
That's the argument advanced in a recent essay for Talking Points Memo by Michael Linden and Sammi Aibinder of the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive policy shop.
Unsatisfied with explanations of the current crisis that posit Trump as the principal cause—a position which suggests that simply removing Trump, as U.S. voters decided to do last month, is the solution—Linden and Aibinder write that "though Donald Trump lost reelection, the ideology and belief system underpinning so many of the debacles of his presidency prevails, and was always doomed to fail the country in the face of a disaster like this one."
"At base, conservative ideology itself was just as responsible for the failure to appropriately and effectively respond to this crisis as Trump's personal failings were," the two argue. "And that ideology will still be present—rife, in fact—in our government long after Trump is gone."
While acknowledging that conservatism is "not homogenous," Linden and Aibinder argue that at the heart of the reactionary ideology is the view that "government itself tends to cause more problems than it solves, and that free markets—unencumbered by government intervention—are always best positioned to allocate resources and improve society."
Adherence to those two positions, according to Linden and Aibinder, is incompatible with an effective response to a pandemic that necessitates coordinated state action to control the spread of the virus, which has now killed more than 273,000 people in the U.S.—the highest Covid-19 death toll in the world.
In contrast with countries like New Zealand and South Korea, where decisive government action helped prevent Covid-19 from running rampant, Linden and Aibinder noted that the U.S. response was plagued by "the conservative belief that government is more often the problem than the solution," which "made it practically inevitable that Republicans would render their own government ineffective."
"Instead of coordinating a national strategy to address the acute shortage of personal protective equipment and vital medical supplies across the country, this administration encouraged state leaders to essentially compete with one another to save their own people," write Linden and Aibinder. "When pressed by state leaders to help solve the PPE shortage, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner replied, 'The free market will solve it.' When asked about the federal government's role in assuring schools are able to resume in-person instruction safely, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos contended that was not her department's job."
But here in the U.S. conservative leaders refused to marshal the resources of government to actually combat the spread of the disease. Instead, in keeping with their ideology, they wanted to leave it to individuals and the "free market."
— Michael Linden (@MichaelSLinden) December 3, 2020
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The devastating consequences of conservative ideology are also evident in the nation's response, or lack thereof, to the economic crisis that the coronavirus pandemic spawned.
Since Congress in March passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act—a measure whose most successful elements, such as the federal boost to unemployment insurance and direct cash payments, drew loud GOP backlash—Republican lawmakers have actively opposed efforts to provide any additional stimulus even as the economy remains in deep recession, a predictable and totally preventable outcome of inaction.
As Linden and Aibinder write:
By May, the S&P 500 had recovered 30 percent of its losses, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared that additional measures were no longer urgent, despite the fact that the unemployment rate was still almost 15 percent and the economy was still over 20 million jobs in the hole. Months passed, and the stock market continued to recover, while the broader economic recovery stalled. Emergency aid lapsed, job gains have slowed, hunger and precariousness has risen. But so long as the stock market continues to thrive, it is unlikely that conservatives will be moved to address these underlying problems.
Capital primacy not only leads conservatives to disregard real economic challenges, it also leaves them with very few tools to use when they do decide to act. Conservatives tend to rely on tax cuts — especially for the wealthy and corporations—as their primary economic policy lever, and disdain public investments, as well as more direct aid or targeted aid to anyone who is not a "job creator."
Ultimately, Linden and Aibinder argue that while "there is no doubt that as president, Donald Trump stamped his own personal brand of ineptitude on this crisis," the coronavirus pandemic "was the test that conservatism was built to fail."
"A public health crisis that demands a coordinated, powerful public response, leveraging all the power and reach of the federal government, meets an ideology that cannot accept a robust role for the public sector and believes the free market will solve all," the two write. "An incredibly unequal economic crisis driven by a collapse in customers, in which the wealthy are mostly doing fine while everyday people teeter on the brink of generational ruin, meets an ideology that cares only for the prospects of those at the top and sees tax cuts as the only useful economic answer."
In the wake of his victory last month, President-elect Joe Biden promised a more coordinated federal response to the coronavirus crisis and appointed economic advisers who appear willing to buck the conservative deficit dogma embraced—often selectively and hypocritically—by Republicans and Biden's former boss, Barack Obama.
But if Democrats fail to retake control of the Senate by winning the pair of Georgia runoffs set for January 5, Biden's vow to tackle the twin public health and economic crises with bold action could be dramatically hindered by McConnell, who appears hellbent on ensuring that the economic meltdown continues no matter the cost to the increasingly hungry and desperate population.
"So long as the stock market continues to thrive," write Linden and Aibinder, "it is unlikely that conservatives will be moved to address these underlying problems."